To defeat IS group, US trains sights on Mosul
Once again, Americans watched with horror and disgust a video released Sunday by the extremist group, the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) purportedly showing the barbaric beheading of US aid worker Peter Kassig.
The video shows a militant standing over a severed head he says belongs to Kassig at the end of a high-definition video tape that first showed the beheading of about a dozen men identified as Syrian military officers and pilots, all dressed in blue jumpsuits.
|Washington believes Assad is a murderous dictator [but] it also feels that the various rebel groups… are no better alternative.|
The voice behind the black executioner's garb speaks with a British accent to the camera from Dabiq – a town in northern Syria that the IS uses as the title of its English-language propaganda magazine and where they believe an apocalyptic battle between Muslims and their enemies will occur – chiding US President Barack Obama.
"We say to you, Obama: ... You claim to have withdrawn from Iraq four years ago. Here you are: You have not withdrawn. Rather, you hid some of your forces behind your proxies."
The masked militant then went on to warn that US soldiers will meet the same fate.
Kassig is the third American to meet this horrible fate; the first two were journalists James Foley on 19 August 19, and Steven Sotloff on 2 September The grizzly videos will remain hauntingly omnipresent in American minds and media, and will inevitably raise calls for increased US military action against IS in Syria, even targeting Syrian regime forces, especially air-defenses in the quest to topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Republican Senator Bob Corker (Tennessee), who will become Chairman of the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the next Congress, said last week that the US military strategy "should include an Assad component". It suggest Corker would like to see the direct targeting of Assad given serious thought.
No radical departure
But while we are likely to see increased bombardments of IS group convoys and strongholds inside Syria, the United States will not venture into direct engagement in Syria. It will not unleash America’s military might to bring about Assad's demise by targeting Syrian air defence assets, fighter-jet landing strips or regime facilities, including any where Bashar al-Assad is likely to be located, and notwithstanding reported Saudi urging.
On the contrary, the only shift in the strategy we are likely to see, is a pivot towards reviving the moribund peace talks between the Syrian regime and representatives of the Syrian opposition. On the day CNN ran the story about the US changing its strategy in Syria because it has not been effective, and because the Saudis were unhappy that said US strategy seems to have reconciled itself with Assad remaining in power, a well-placed source told me (on condition of anonymity), that the US was inclined to follow the lead of the United Nations envoy to Syria.
Steffan de Mistura, the source said, had "succeeded in inducting US support in his efforts to arrange for localized ceasefires; In Aleppo to start with, then elsewhere, as a first step towards direct talks between the regime and the opposition". Whether this is with any enthusiasm, is a different question; Jen Psaki, the US state department spokesperson told me that the administration was "sceptical" about temporary ceasefires even while recognizing that de-Mistura brings fresh energy with him.
The well-placed source also told me that the, " thinking is to start from where Geneva I ended, almost skipping over Geneva II, which accomplished nothing except [to] provide each party with a forum to recriminate the other."
(The long anticipated Geneva II, finally took place on Jan.23-31, (with a second round held Feb.10-15, 2014). It unwisely excluded Iran, which both the US and Saudi Arabia consider Assad's lifeline.)
No good options
Syria today presents the United States with no good options, and a set of harrowing trade-offs. While Washington believes Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, is a murderous dictator, it also feels that the various rebel groups trying to wrest the country from his control (which include IS), are no better alternative. To strike Assad would help IS. To strike IS, as the Obama administration is doing, helps Assad. Those are the daunting choices confronting all who favour intervention. And while the prospect of aiding and abetting either Assad or the IS group doesn't decisively prove or disprove the value of intervention, it remains to be a factor that US seems to be confronting with eyes wide-open.
For sure Obama has repeatedly called for the ouster of Assad, and is loath to be seen as aiding the Syrian government, even inadvertently. That is why the Pentagon is drafting its military options to strike the IS group near the largely erased border between Iraq and Syria. By defeating IS in Iraq, the thinking goes, the group will suffer irrecoverably.
That's why the US plans to retake Mosul. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, visited Baghdad on 15 November, days after Obama authorised the deployment of an additional 1,500 troops, doubling the number already there. When questioned by Congress before his trip, about whether US troops will accompany Iraqi forces in an operation to take back Mosul, Dempsey said it was unlikely "but we're certainly considering it".
"We're going to need about 80,000 competent Iraqi security forces to recapture territory lost, and eventually the city of Mosul, to restore the border," he added.
So, this is the US strategy: Troops to defeat IS in Iraq on the ground, while increasing airstrikes in Syria, and preparing the groundwork for renewed talks between the regime and the "moderate opposition", this time with Tehran's inclusion, to lean on Assad to agree to a power-sharing arrangement.